Jesus was no stranger to persecution. Even his own life ended in a tragic beating and crucifixion. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he told them, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). This request was not just a simple inconvenience to one’s selfish agenda. It included the very real possibility that every disciple would have to die because of their loyalty to Jesus. The meaning of picking up one’s cross daily, was clearly meant to invoke such an understanding.
After his resurrection, Jesus reinstated Peter and he reminded him about the serious nature of discipleship. He said, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (John 21:18)." As a disciple, Peter would no longer march to his own drumbeat. He would indeed go to places where he would not want to go. Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside-down in Rome; and he was not alone, for several other disciples also died as martyrs.
Persecution and martyrdom are not anomalies in the Christian life. In fact, Jesus plainly cautioned his disciples about their own susceptibility to persecution. In John 15:18; 20 he says, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first . . . . Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you”. Paul also confirmed the inevitability of persecution, “You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. . . . Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim 3:11-12)”.
A new report by a leading watchdog group has identified 2016 as the “worst year yet” for Christian persecution, ever since the organization began monitoring persecution 25 years ago. The report, which is produced annually by Open Doors USA, found that persecution of Christians rose globally for the third year in a row, reaching “unprecedented levels”.
Each month, worldwide, 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 churches or Christian properties are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians (such as beatings, imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, beheadings, rape, abductions, and forced marriages).
In February of this year, members of an ISIS affiliate had released a video saying that Egyptian Christians were their "favorite prey." Yes, you read that correctly. Christians are their “favorite prey”.
In April, at least 45 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in two separate suicide bomb attacks on churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria during Palm Sunday ceremonies. ISIS claimed responsibility.
On May 26, 2017, major news networks reported that as many as 10 attackers in 3 SUVs stormed a bus occupied by Coptic Christians that were headed to a monastery in Minya province in Egypt. The attackers were dressed in military uniforms and wearing masks. They demanded that the passengers recite the Muslim profession of faith, according to witnesses. When they refused, the gunmen opened fire killing at least 28 and injuring 23, including many children.
What are Christians to do in the face of such evil? How are they to react when they are the “favorite prey” of persecutors? John Stott says, “We are not to retaliate like an unbeliever, nor sulk like a child, nor lick our wounds in self-pity like a dog, nor just grin and bear it like a Stoic, still less pretend we enjoy it like a masochist.” Stott is right. Instead, we are to count ourselves worthy to suffer for Christ and to pray for and forgive our enemies.
The following story, from Christianity Today and adapted for this blog, is a modern illustration of what Jesus would expect from every one of his followers:
Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response. “The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.
Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral which was one of the targets of a twin suicide bombing of churches that happened on Palm Sunday.
The guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.
“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, “May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”
Stunned, Adeeb stammered, “How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Yes, this is their faith and conviction. And yes, it is the faith and conviction of millions of Christians around the world. It is what Christians are supposed to do. Don’t get me wrong, this is never going to be easy. But the premise for such a response is rooted in the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matt. 5:43-44)
Many people might find these words of Jesus to be counterintuitive. How do we reconcile loving our enemies while also hoping for justice? Jesus taught several important things about persecution.
First, Christians will be persecuted in varying degrees just for being a follower of Jesus. This is not a new phenomenon. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews illustrates the persecution believers suffered:
Others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground (Heb. 11:35-38).
If you are a true follower of Christ, persecution is inevitable. Evangelist Billy Graham said, “Persecution is one of the natural consequences of living the Christian life. It is to the Christian what “growing pains” are to the growing child. No pain, no development. No suffering, no glory. No struggle, no victory. No persecution, no reward!”
Second, our only justifiable response to persecution is to do what Jesus tells us, “love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us”. Why? Because God can bring persecutors to salvation. This was true of the Apostle Paul. He spoke about the church’s reaction to his own conversion to Christianity, “The Christians in the churches in Judea didn’t know me personally. All they knew was that people were saying, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!” And they praised God because of me (Gal. 1:22-24)”.
Third, justice will be served. Not by us, but by our Lord. The persecution of Christians serves a purpose in this world and justice will prevail as Paul clearly tells the Thessalonians:
God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering. In his justice, he will pay back those who persecute you. And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power (2 Thess. 1:3-9).
If you have ever been persecuted for your Christian faith, you know exactly how it feels. God promises to balance the scales of justice for every persecuted Christian when his Son returns. In the meantime, our Lord’s example gives us hope for the present. The author of Hebrews wrote to those suffering persecution, “Consider him [Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:2-3). Don’t grow weary my friends and lose hope. Consider Jesus, who said, “In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world (John 16:33)”.
Finally, I leave you to ponder the words of former United States Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia. In a speech to the Living the Catholic Faith Conference in 2012, he urged all Christians to live fearlessly:
God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools. . . . and He has not been disappointed. . . . If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.
 John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, IVP, 1978, p. 52.
 Adapted from Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/april/forgiveness-muslims-moved-coptic-christians-egypt-isis.html
 The Wit and Wisdom of Justice Scalia: Nine Zingers, http://www.newsweek.com/wit-wisdom-antonin-scalia-426548